Regents should investigate contracting policies, construction


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Monday’s death marked the second construction-related fatality at the University of Iowa in the last five months.

Kevin Dean Hammons was trapped underground by a collapsed beam while working on the Art Building West construction site; at the conclusion of a four-hour rescue, he was declared dead at the scene, with ambulances and medical personnel standing ready.

In August, Lawrence Fosdick fell 24 feet off a ladder while working on the Boyd Law Building. He died two days later.

A year with two construction deaths is highly unusual, said Bill Gerhard, the president of the Iowa State Building & Construction Trades Council. While the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation is still ongoing, and tragic coincidences have been known to occur, two deaths in five months is disquieting. Particularly if the OSHA inquiry does find that the contractor was at fault, the state Board of Regents must launch its own investigation into how construction projects are contracted and overseen.

Because a large amount of construction related to flood recovery, Hancher replacement, and a new residence hall, among other items, will take place in the next five years, immediate action is particularly important.

The current process for assigning construction contracts favors the lowest bidder — but not, UI spokesman Tom Moore said, at the expense of safety. “All builders have to be insured and bonded,” he said. “Companies with poor safety records cost more to insure.”

Construction contracts are awarded through the “competitive-bid process,” which is dictated by Iowa law. Any project costing over $1 million must be approved by the regents. They look for the most cost-effective option, though Moore maintained that unsafe contractors are not cost-effective.

In addition, a report is filed after every safety incident a contractor experiences. These reports are available to the regents during the bidding process, so they can ostensibly avoid builders with unsafe practices. Once the contract is signed, Moore said, the contractor is responsible for maintaining a safe work site.

While it is too soon to assign blame in the most recent accident, it’s worth mentioning that Iowa Bridge and Culvert Inc., the subcontractor that employed Hammons, received $5,450 worth of citations from OSHA in March 2009. If OSHA’s investigation uncovers further safety violations at the site, as it did at the Boyd Law construction site (contracted by Swanson Glass Inc.), the regents must pay closer attention to the number and type of violations a builder has received and weigh that information heavily during the bidding process.

Even if the contractor is ultimately responsible for the safety of its sites, the university has a moral obligation to ensure that its construction projects do not result in harm to workers. Enforcement of workplace safety standards can be difficult when it falls on the shoulders of numerous subcontractors and contracting firms, and relying on punitive measures is not a sufficient strategy for preventing injury during a period of much construction.

Even with improved safety standards, some deaths will occur in the construction industry. “It’s a dangerous occupation,” Gerhard said. “But when people go to work, they need to be able to come home at night.” The state, the regents, and the UI should make a detailed inquiry into their contracting practices and construction policies. While they may not be legally liable for workplace injuries, all of these institutions are responsible for the way they sign contracts: Those contracts should only go to companies that preseve the welfare of their employees.

And whatever the results of the OSHA (and, hopefully, regent) investigation, the two deaths so close together should prompt regents to consider new ways of improving safety at the UI’s construction sites.

The regents could commit to awarding contracts only to builders who require safety training above and beyond the minimum 10-hour class that OSHA requires.

A 30-hour class is available, and several contractors have begun using this standard — though for now it remains optional. Contracts could also include clauses forcing a contractor to forfeit a contract for severe safety violations, including grievous injuries and deaths. Most importantly, the regents ought to emphasize a culture of safety among the contractors they hire, clearly communicating that safety violations will not be tolerated.

Tower cranes and dump trucks will be fixtures in Iowa City construction sites for the next several years, but ambulances should not be.

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